Mocking the ‘Civilized’ Viewer-chimpanzee – Ruben Östlund’s 'The Square'

The article argues that Östlund’s 'The Square' (2017) can be seen as a kind of interactive cinematic experiment, serving both as a fierce indictment against contemporary Western humans’ fake morality and a questioning of the relationship between director, film and the audience(s) involved in the overall movie-watching process.


Östlund’s The Square is a multifaceted piece of art broaching a variety of philosophical issues, with some very interesting implications at the social, political and aesthetic levels as well. The question of whether our contemporary, glossy Western Self and society are indeed what they claim to be – i.e., ‘civilized’, compassionate, and full of understanding towards the ‘Other’ – emerges as the central topic throughout the movie. In my attempt to get as close as possible to a satisfactory answer to this question, I structure the article around the conflictive relationship between humans and animals. Modern people have been infected, I claim, by the deceitful ideals of improvement, progress, evolution, etc., which, grosso modo, have been the ideals that marked indelibly the era of the Enlightenment. In the official ideology of the Enlightenment, we discern a major deviation from reality of humans’ perception of themselves, a dominance of what they should be over what they really are. By deviating from the reality of what they are, they necessarily deviated from Nature too, and whenever Nature is forcibly negated, she will necessarily bounce back even more fiercely, most probably in a pathological manner. The animal within, even though violently repressed for ages, finally emerges again and imposes itself upon the false ‘civilized’ varnish of the surface.  Egotism, violence, vanity, and dishonesty immediately gain back what they had only temporarily been divested of by ideology and false morality. Through the violent rejection of their true animalistic nature humans are actually deceiving themselves, they are turning a blind eye to their true inner reality in favor of their idealistic (in the sense of fictitious and non-realistic) projections of themselves. In this article, I propose a reading of Östlund’s movie according to which it can be seen as a vehicle for a more in-depth exploration of this striking phenomenon of human psychology.

The ‘human-animal’ dipole and the concomitant psychological mechanism of the repression of the animal within can also be seen as a mechanism humans have invented in order to achieve their own ‘subjectivization’. I will refer to this term again in what follows since it has further important implications in relation to any other kind of ‘Otherness’. It can also be applied to the nowadays much-discussed topical issue of the immigration and West’s stance towards it, an issue for which Östlund has been showing an increased interest in all of his movies, including The Square. As Sibley (1998: 119 – my emphasis) has argued,

... some ‘others,’ for example, racialized minorities, are introjected as bad objects, that is, they enter the psyche as objects which cause unease and discomfort. These feelings are projected onto others who might be otherwise defined as abject. Following Bataille, Kristeva (1982) argues that while we try to remove the abject, it is always there. Anxieties about abject difference will not go away.

So, a second topic I will be discussing in relation to Östlund’s The Square is adjacent to – in fact a by-product of – the first and fundamental one, that of the ‘human-animal’ relationship and could be denominated ‘the abject Other’ syndrome, following Sibley, Bataille and Kristeva’s terms. The small immigrant boy in The Square can be seen as this abject Other, a bad object, for the essentially racist consciousness of contemporary Swedish society in general and Christian in particular. Bogus non-racism, idealist projections of what one should be – as opposed to what one really is – cannot help in such deeply entrenched stereotypes of the human psyche. Ultimately, Christian will see himself obliged to admit his true animalistic – in the sense of self-centered, violent, xenophobic – nature.

I propose a ‘reading’ of the movie revolving around the following axis: I claim that Östlund’s basic ‘working assumption’ in The Square is that contemporary human beings do not diverge much from what they used to be in their primitive condition. Essentially, they are still functioning today much in the same animalistic manner as always; the fundamental motive powers still defining their psychic world and life are identical to those same vital drives which governed the life of their remote ancestors. They are still equally violent and aggressive vis-à-vis the rest of mankind and this reality comes in sharp contrast to the image of a ‘civilized’ and ‘polished’ being which they have reserved for themselves during long centuries of so-called ‘human evolution’. Furthermore, Östlund is not satisfied with merely presenting these assumptions on-screen, he also transfers them out of the screen, onto his audience(s), to test them empirically as well in what turns to be a masterly interactive game between participants of the movie and audience(s), thought and praxis, cinema and reality, which overall enraptures us by the exceptional intelligence of its creator.

That Animal Within. A Short Archaeology of Human Animality

Probably originating in the dawn of all contemporary Western civilization – the Greek classical Antiquity – a spurious human-animal ‘difference’ has established itself historically, first legitimizing itself in Aristotle’s naive belief that a human being indeed is superior to the animal as the only ‘ζῷον λόγον ἔχον’ (‘the only animal possessing language’) (Driscoll 2014: 5).

It was a matter of time that such a segregationist view – one among innumerable others human beings stubbornly cling to – would take root as a universal truth of indubitable validity before finally taking the guise of just another ideal: “the Christian ideal of transcending the so-called ‘bestial’ within human character” (Anderson 2000: 4). Every time we separate ourselves from the rest of existence a profound split is the logical outcome – this time the “... ‘split’ between a (despised) ‘animal’ nature and a (moral) ‘human’ culture” (Anderson 2000: 4). Soon, the ‘animal’ was identified with the ‘abject’, our bestial aspect, that alienated ‘other’ who, even though has always resided within us, had in any event to be expelled from our supposedly superior, ‘godly’ nature.

The Devil, however, – as is well-known – is omnipresent, always threatening to destabilize our moral integrity and virtuous intentions. Once deeply split in at least two inner selves – the ‘animalistic’ and the ‘human’– relapse to the former was rendered a constant danger for humans and thus a whole psychological apparatus had to be constructed to fend it off once and for all. Hence the ‘teleological,’ ‘universalist,’ ‘progressist’ mantle which the notion of a ‘human being’ took on during Modernity. Now, humans had at last a mission, a telos, a long-craved for life-purpose. They were the chosen ones whom (their own) God had delegated – for some still unexplained reasons – to ascend from the brutal, pre-human, animalistic condition in which they were born to their ‘divine,’ truly ‘human’ status. They had a trajectory to follow and, in order to succeed, they had to comply with a strictly outlined method, a vast labyrinth of religious and ethical precepts which, if properly observed would, no doubt, sometime in the distant future, lead to unconditional freedom from all evil and vice. Humans were thus immersed in the reign of Time and, in what followed, they were condemned to be eternally running after their own tail, trapped in the promising, albeit fictitious, imagery of spurious ideals and hopes of the like of progress, development, arrival.

But of course, in the process, the impure ‘Other’ – either internal or external – had to be implacably eliminated. Racism in its manifold manifestations, – whether in the form of black slavery during the Spanish and Portuguese Empires or in the guise of racism against the blacks of the U.S.A. in more recent times, as well as all the thousands of ‘religious,’ colonialist or imperialist wars of the modern time had just found their absolute legitimization, properly adjusted to the delicate needs of the new global Western Hegemony.

Humans – especially in the West – were proclaimed the indisputable masters of the universe, and a new anthropocentric, anthropomorphic culture was created: “The concept of telos was crucial to the universalizing idea of Human – as a singular a priori category distinct not only from Animal, but also from embodied and differentiated individuals” (Anderson 2000: 8 – my emphasis).

How many steps have we really taken toward this redemptive telos? After so many centuries – or perhaps millennia? – shouldn’t we have finally arrived? Shouldn’t we have been able to liberate ourselves from that dark, ‘animalistic’ side of our existence? Shouldn’t we have at last eliminated that diabolical ‘Other’ with all his obsessive obstinacy in deviating us from our noble goals? Or has it all simply been just one more ‘language game’ of ours, as Derrida has clearly stated it: “The animal is a word, it is an appellation that men have instituted, a name they have given themselves the right and the authority to give to another living creature [a l'autre vivant]” (Derrida 2002: 392 – my emphasis). Anderson has formulated the same idea in his own manner: “Third, the language crystallised a universalist (but in practice, Eurocentric) model of human development as an ascent out of savagery” (2000: 9 – my emphasis). Or else: what if this inner split distancing us from a supposed vile entity residing within us has been nothing more than a mere linguistic – i.e., by us ideated – ruse, so that we be able to claim a no less fictitious superiority of ourselves vis-à-vis all the kinds of an ‘Other’ –  be it an animal, or people of colour, people of the so-called ‘Third World,’ etc.?

A ruse probably not so new in our long History, but surely one that has been reinstated for good and brought to its very extremes during the Enlightenment, an era admittedly marked by the entrenchment in human consciousness of what Slavoj Žižek has termed “the “official” image of the Enlightenment – the ideology of universal Reason and the progress of humanity, etc.” (Žižek 1992: 180); which, on its turn, according to Žižek again, emanated straight from Kant’s version of “subjectivization” (Žižek 1992: 88; Rohman 2005: 121): “the subject “is” only insofar as the Thing (the Kantian Thing in itself as well as the Freudian impossible-incestuous object, das Ding) is sacrificed, “primordially repressed” - we are again at the motif of Versagung. This “primordial repression” introduces a fundamental imbalance in the universe: the symbolically structured universe we live in is organized around a void, an impossibility (the inaccessibility of the Thing in itself)” (Žižek 1992: 181 – emphasis in the original).

However, despite this essentially Humanist and anthropomorphic understanding of human ‘subjectivization’ as introduced first by Kant and, henceforth, gradually regularized by the whole project of the Enlightenment, there also existed in early modern Europe certain voices who strongly opposed “... the prevailing view that a wise Providence was guiding humans whose duty on earth was supposedly to “improve” the earth through animal husbandry and tillage” (Anderson 2000: 10), most predominantly among them, Erasmus, Thomas More and Montaigne. It cannot be a mere coincidence that Jacques Derrida, deemed Montaigne the main representative of such a counter-Enlightenment movement, minoritarian in the beginning, but gradually ever more present within the European context, which challenged the official euphoric vision of human beings’ predominance over the rest of the universe, departing exactly from the problematics of the human-animal relation. It is Montaigne’s recognition in the animal of “more than a right to communication, to the sign, to language as sign (something Descartes will not deny), namely, a capacity to respond” the element that marks “a difference from the modern (Cartesian or post-Cartesian) form of a hegemonic tradition,” writes Derrida (2002: 375 – emphasis in the original).

But hasn’t Montaigne been something like a father figure for the so-called French Moralists, those philosophers of the posterior Baroque era who straightly defied the mellifluous official ideology of both Renaissance and Enlightenment? And haven’t the Moralists also been a major influence in the thought of other emblematic philosophers of later times who also unleashed a fierce critique against the official paradigm of the Western culture, such as Leopardi, Schopenhauer or Nietzsche? If the Moralists are worth mentioning as regards the human-animal relationship and its ramifications in the broader topic of the official Western culture discussed here, it is because they were among the first – after Montaigne – who dared to turn their eyes away from the ideal of what a human being should be and face the reality of what human beings have always been and still are: “Every civilised being, however high his conscious development, is still an archaic man at the deeper level of his psyche” Jung has stated (cited in Anderson 2000: 5). Their gaze has been anatomical, with no distortions or wishful thinking at all. They contemplated humans as a scientist would set out to study any other object or phenomenon of the outside world, and they plumbed such depths in their study of human psychology that we still get impressed by their precision of observation as well as the truthfulness of their findings about our true human – in fact, ‘animalistic’ – nature.

Östlund’s movie, I argue, even if unconsciously, drinks from the waters of this heretic philosophical current, which stems from figures like Montaigne, passes through the Baroque era and the French Moralists, blossoms in the philosophical insight of geniuses like Leopardi, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche – a bit latter, Carlo Michelstaedter as well, – to finally flow into the highly transgressive, almost apocalyptic (or post-apocalyptic) logos of post-war European philosophers – mainly poststructuralists and postmodernists – like Jacques Derrida.

So, let the show begin!

'The Square' (Ruben Östlund, 2017).

Facing the Chimpanzee in the Mirror

Christian is an attractive and successful young man at the apogee of his professional career. He is well-off and enjoys a sterling reputation in art circles. After an interview he gives to Ann – an equally young and attractive journalist working for some TV channel – he has no difficulty in getting her into bed. While they are making love, to his big surprise, Christian encounters a chimpanzee wandering about in the adjacent room, staring at him so naturally as if he were the host. It looks like he shares the house with Ann, but she has not informed Christian right from the start about her peculiar roommate! Despite his astonishment Christian keeps on making love to her without commenting on the weird incident.

With this ingenious optical metaphor Östlund associatively connects the sexual act with our innermost animalistic drives, still inherent in modern human psyche despite the successive layers of artificial ‘civilization’ deposited on it. He reminds us that even though we may be shaved now, even if we may have dressed ourselves elegantly, are able to handle with remarkable ease our laptops and smartphones, and despite the fact that we have learned to use a prophylactic during sexual intercourse, we should by no means believe that we have distanced ourselves much from our primal, essentially animalistic nature. We are still prisoners of the same primeval, atavistic instincts. And probably, there is nothing contemptible in just recognizing such a palpable fact.

Soon after Christian and Ann have made love and once he has witnessed the perplexing encounter with the chimpanzee in her house, the couple, as is customary, come into conflict with one another, for a seemingly ridiculous reason: Ann asks Christian to pass her the prophylactic they used so that she can throw it in the trash can. Christian, however, obstinately refuses to do so. Ann feels offended by his unjustified denial and looks like suspecting that Christian’s weird behavior stems from his thinking himself as a kind of ‘celebrity,’ probably fearing that she could somehow be willing to steal his sperm and use it to her benefit.

As soon as carnal appetite is satiated, the two egos snap back quickly. They entrench themselves behind their own suffocating microcosms, defending themselves while at the same time they are ready to attack one another mercilessly on the most trivial pretext. “Men would not live together for long, were they not dupes of each other,” writes de la Rochefoucauld (2003: 41). Aggressiveness, animosity and pettiness recuperate instantaneously. They regain their hegemony, after their temporary state of narcosis brought about by the ephemeral anaesthetic of the genital embrace.

Next day, when Ann confides to Christian that for her, the night they spent together was not confined to sex alone, Christian remains markedly indifferent. Furthermore, he does not even answer the phone when she gives him a call that same afternoon. This way, Christian reveals his true egotistic and utilitarian face, as opposed to his unwavering belief that exactly the opposite holds: that instead, he is a person imbued with emotions of compassion and good faith towards everyone, virtues which he is supposedly promoting in an active manner, both at the professional (the ‘Square’ project itself) and the personal level (indeed, he did not hesitate long to offer help to the crying girl on the street, even though it finally proved to be a racket). Schopenhauer was right in reminding us that the Self is an arena, a palestra full of innumerable inclinations and contradictions with no predetermined or permanent winner whatsoever: “... he himself is the battlefield. If one side of him is continually conquering, the other is continually struggling; for its life is bound up with his own, and, as a man, he is the possibility of many contradictions” (Schopenhauer 2005: 61).

In many other instances throughout the movie Christian’s value system as well as the image he has created of himself are challenged; as, for example, when the young immigrant, enraged by the mess Christian has caused to his life with his note, visits him at his home. Taken by surprise, Christian will try to send the boy away with a flea in his ear, attempting thus to defend the little enclosed space he has laboriously created for himself. Its narrow confines are delimited by family, children, job and good reputation, his fame of a modern technocrat and a connoisseur in matters of Art, as well as that of a man with a heightened sense of social awareness. And, as if it were not enough, determined to send the boy away by hook or by crook, he will not even hesitate to use physical violence against him pushing him down the stairs. He will not even react to his prolonged and emphatic calls for help; instead, he will remain utterly indifferent, confirming thus Blaise Pascal who, early on, had the courage to confess that “We are only deceit, duplicity, inconsistency, and we hide and disguise ourselves from ourselves” (1900: 122); and de la Rochefoucauld, who has warned us in his characteristically disarming style, that: “Egotism plays many parts, even that of altruism” (2003: 22). Carefully hidden behind the façade of a socially sensitive person, which Christian has rigorously nurtured for long, there lies in fact one more egotist man using his diligently designed public ‘persona’ to extract personal gains from both people and society. Again, Rochefoucauld has described such a world in his disturbingly outspoken manner: “Hence, we may say that this world is a world of masks” (2003: 54).

Christian’s fake life vision and value system easily collapse as several psychological components of his ego mechanism feel they are threatened. Self-protecting mechanisms against what is perceived as an exogenous danger – a ‘bad object,’ the ‘racialized’ and ‘abject’ Other, interiorized as the factor that impedes one’s own ‘subjectivization’ – are automatically activated. Christian will try by any means first to expel this Other and then, to adjust psychologically as soon as possible: the essentially defensive mechanism of remorse has already been set in motion.

‘Remorse’: The Cheap Alibi of the Ape

Realizing that he has betrayed his own ‘value system,’ – the one he has been cunningly implementing for years with a view to succeeding professionally and gaining economically, – Christian feels remorseful. Inwardly he understands that he has certainly been aggressive towards people far weaker than him only to defend his personal belongings and supposed individual rights. Immersed in the material affluence and success of his self-centered life, he vaguely senses that he may have not been the victim at all but rather the perpetrator against people who, in fact, could not by any means constitute a serious threat for him whatsoever. De la Bruyère has written about his case: “Health and wealth prevent men from experiencing misfortunes, and thus make them callous to their suffering fellow-creatures; whilst they who already are burdened by their own miseries feel most tenderly those of others” (1885: 300).

Then, remorse – that mechanism Civilization has instilled in him to render him able to counteract the innately inscribed on our human consciousness trait of violence – is activated: “Civilization, therefore, obtains mastery over the individual’s dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city” (Freud 1962: 70-71).

Reality, however, cannot be negated by means of ruses like that of ‘civilization.’ It will always lie there, manifesting itself in all its natural grandeur, making a fool of humans in their tireless endeavor to discredit or conceal it: “In short, nature’s variety is so great that it is impossible for civilization, for all its tendency to make people uniform, to conquer nature” (Leopardi 2002: 66). Much more beautiful would humans be in their natural condition, with no pretenses or affectations exogenously imposed upon them, no matter how much ‘uncivilized’ or coarse they might look like in this case: “Generally, wanting to be what we are not spoils everything in the world. Very many people are unbearable for no other reason, although they would be very likable if only they would be content to be themselves,” continues Leopardi (2002: 68). We are legitimately entitled to alternatively define our Civilization as an effort to turn our gaze as far away as possible from that which we have always been and still are.

Christian decides to redress the wrong he has done to the boy. In a scene full of intensity we watch him, under a torrential rain, searching furiously in the trash can for a note containing the little boy’s telephone number. After a long while, he finally finds it, but when he dials the number, nobody answers his call. Then, vehemently, he starts to record a video message for the boy, without it being known to us whether this message finally reaches him or not. It begins as a seemingly sincere apology in which Christian appears having regretted for the wrongs he has done him, but soon it degrades into a cheap as much as pompous glib talk, abstractly invoking some exogenous systemic factors like the political sphere, the social classes, society in general, etc., as the true reasons for his own despicable behavior.

Naturally enough: Christian is never going to admit how egotistic, aggressive and unfair he has been towards people overwhelmingly weaker than him. He will certainly try to appear as genuinely remorseful; he will summon all his rhetorical skills emanating from the high educational level and enviable economic status bestowed on him by his Scandinavian origin, determined, however, to defend himself to the death until he clears his name of any suspicion of irresponsible or immoral behavior. It is the only method the contemporary Western human possesses to overcome the guilt which Civilization has infused into him aiming in vain at rendering him somewhat more ethical than he is in reality; it is his routine tactics by means of which he attempts to abdicate his responsibility for the fact that billions of people live in much worse conditions than his; it is his way of turning a blind eye to the social exclusion he has ruthlessly imposed on the unfortunate ‘Other’ – the refugee, the homeless, the poor. In Christian’s hypocritical video message, we recall Rochefoucauld again:

One perceives that people know their own faults better than we suspect, since they never admit their errors in speaking of their conduct. At such times conceit, which generally blinds them, enlightens them, and so sharpens their wits that they can suppress or conceal the slightest thing which might be incriminating” (2003: 88).

Again, Christian will have recourse to exactly the same defensive strategy, when he will be summoned to give an explanation of his even graver blunder of releasing the splatter video which, in the meantime, has rapidly gone viral on YouTube as the official clip for his ‘Square’ project: at the press conference held by the museum on the occasion of the scandal provoked, where he will find himself obliged to confront a multitude of enraged journalists ready to argue him into a corner, Christian will assume part of the responsibility that corresponds to him on the one hand, while on the other, he will make an attempt to downplay its importance. His argument that he was not present during the decisive meeting with the advertising agency naturally enough fails to convince anybody. First and foremost, because he is the one in charge of both the team and the project, and thus, it is completely unacceptable that he would be absent from this one, and secondly, because this has not been the only time he has prioritized his personal affairs over his professional and ethical obligations.

His resignation from his post now seems like an inevitable certainty, however, even at the last minute, Christian will try to salvage any remnants of his unexpectedly ruined career, but above anything else he will seek to mend his wounded reputation and egoism. And he will do so by feigning self-deprecation in public, seemingly accepting full responsibility for the scandal provoked, but only to the extent that this stratagem will serve him as a springboard to safeguard and further enhance his own Ego – currently being attacked on all sides – only to be able to elevate it above what it really deserves later on. He will appear as self-effacing only to temporarily placate his critics, to engage them emotionally to his advantage, and be able again to claim back everything he is deprived off for the moment due to both inappropriate handlings and unfortunate circumstances: “Humility is often but a feigned submission used to subordinate others; it is a trick whereby pride abases itself only to exalt itself later, and, although manifested in many ways, it is never as well masked, nor as capable of deceiving as when wrapped in the cloak of humility” reminds us de la Rochefoucauld (2003: 53-54).

The Chimpanzee Turned into a Moralist

Time and again, Christian reveals himself as morally despicable, in sharp contrast to his own assertions and the image he has meticulously created for himself in the course of time. The Square itself is thus revealed to us as a profound multi-layered study on the extent to which contemporary humans are ‘moral,’ as they themselves claim, or immoral to the bone. It can be seen as a study on the degree to which we have actually progressed compared to our initial state of pithecoids – as our modern Western Civilization contends – or not at all.

In this movie, Östlund raises the big issues about our true nature, the fake images we tend to construct for ourselves, the hypocrisy we summon in every single manifestation of our daily lives only to promote our personal interests in any possible way, our ubiquitous aggressiveness and immorality vis-à-vis the ‘Other’; about the infinite rhetorical schemata we go on inventing in our attempt to convince both ourselves and one another about the supposed sincerity of our intentions, when it is all too obvious that the only motive lurking behind our every single word and action is solely our egoism. Apropos of these fundamental questions regarding our human nature in general, he creates one more movie-catapult against the hypocrisy underlying the contemporary Swedish society which, after having invested heavily on its image as one of the most unprejudiced and ‘civilized’ societies in the world, more frequently than not today proves to be completely inept at subduing the fundamental conflict stemming from our efforts to impose any set of preconceived ethical norms on our true – in fact violent, and aggressive – human nature.

Viewed at close quarters, the masks fall. The chimpanzee inside – either of a Scandinavian descent or not – is there staring at us scornfully, elatedly, as the indisputable winner, exactly like the chimpanzee in Ann’s room is staring at Christian. “Man is at bottom a wild, horrible creature. We know him merely as broken in and tamed by what we call civilization, and hence the occasional outbreaks of his nature shock us” (Schopenhauer 1926: 207); and society, being a human by-product, is equally rotten and abhorrent, epitomized by a rather coarse, even though absolutely real and tangible kind of ‘social stratification,’ which Giacomo Leopardi was probably the first to observe. Referring to that category of people who are practically incapable of adjusting themselves to the human society due to a kind of innate lack of pretense and the simplicity of manners they possess, he has written:

...they cannot rid themselves of a certain simplicity of behaviour, devoid of those rather deceptive and artificial appearances, which all others (including fools), even if they never realise it, always have at their disposal and make use of, and which in them, and in their own eyes, is very difficult to distinguish from what is natural” (Leopardi 2002: 16).

Joining Leopardi in his insight we can thus contemplate human society as divided into two basic social strata: one – by far the most numerous – comprising those who are innately capable of adapting to the mindset prevalent in society and who will not hesitate to take whatever guise they deem proper in order to pursue their personal interests; and another, comprised of those few ones who, being bereft of any kind of pretense, they are completely incapable of any form of hypocrisy or dissimulation and, equivalently, of a sufficient degree of adaptability to society’s protocols and norms of behavior.

Christian, certainly, belongs to the first social group. He represents the typical modern Westerner with a high level of educational attainment and familiarity with the admirable technological achievements of our Western civilization, the well-to-do technocrat, the art connoisseur, an ardent advocate of the set of social sensibilities characteristic of the Swedish society to which he belongs. However, he is in fact nothing more than another hypocritical, egotistical, and hence, deeply immoral person, ready to exploit his fellow humans only to promote his self-interest. Using the idea of the ‘Square’ he advertises himself publicly as someone imbued with sentiments of solidarity, trust and love. In reality, he only aims at advancing his career and highlighting himself as a ‘moral’ and ‘altruistic’ human being. The motto he selects for his ‘Square’ project preaches that “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring,” however, he himself by no means does identify with such a set of values, as is corroborated by his cruel behavior towards Ann, his frivolous idea of distributing those threatening notes to the immigrants’ apartments, or his unjust and violent behavior against the boy. He thus validates again de la Rochefoucauld who has asserted that “It is easier to preach virtue than to practice it” (2003: 34); and Schopenhauer, who has promptly warned us that what the so-called ‘civilized’ human terms ‘Morality’ can never create really virtuous human beings, simply because it approaches the very real and tangible reign of virtue via abstract concepts and a multitude of cheap moralizing sermons, whereas in reality, it holds that “... no genuine virtue can be brought about through morality and abstract knowledge in general” (Schopenhauer 1966: 367). It is for this reason – again according to Schopenhauer – that “On the contrary, we are as little able to produce a virtuous person by ethical discourses or sermons as all the systems of aesthetics from Aristotle’s downwards have ever been able to produce a poet” (Schopenhauer 1966: 368).

All the imaginative slogans of the world, the eloquent discourses, all the big words about solidarity and love, obviously cannot in themselves render Christian a virtuous or a moral person. Behind the bombast of the virtuous ‘persona’ he has carefully cultivated, there still suppurates profusely the same omnipresent entity: his Self. Because, in the last analysis, it is a universal truth that “... the lawful and commendable actions of mankind often do not contain a particle of pure moral worth, and in most cases only a very little, resting, as they do, otherwise on motives, the sufficiency of which must ultimately be referred to the egoism of the doer,” disenchants us again Schopenhauer (1903: 10). It is by his ‘φιληδονία’ (‘lust’) – to use Pascal’s term – that Christian is driven in reality, and it is from this human lust that all the so-called ‘moral’ norms have emerged historically, as well as every other kind of laws and norms invented by us: “All men naturally hate one another. They have done what they could to make lust subordinate to the public good. But it is only pretense, and a false image of charity, for at bottom it is only hate” (Pascal 1900: 126 – my emphasis). We can interchange Pascal’s term of ‘lust’ with the respective of Carlo Michelstaedter ‘φιλοψυχία’, which can be literally translated as ‘love for the self’, ‘love for one’s own life’, and still obtain the same result: “... ἡ φιλοψυχία την κοινωνίαν συνέστησεν, ‘The attachment to life has generated society’ ” (Michelstaedter 2004: 141). According to Michelstaedter, if we have opted for organizing into our so-called societies it has been only due to our own self-love, and certainly not out of a concern for other people’s lives. The total sum of many individual egocentric entities, however, cannot but lead to a society equally governed by those same principles of egoism, self-love, competition and, in the last analysis, hate against one another. It will deterministically lead to a ‘κοινωνία κακῶν’ [‘clique of evil ones’], again according to the term introduced by Michelstaedter (2011: 45-46). Exactly the way we observe it happening in our modern Western societies: independently of our verbal declarations, our supposed ‘noble intentions’ or ‘high principles,’ and after so many thousands of years full of tedious repetition of unaltered human behavior, virtue and goodness still remain the big desiderata; they still manifest an exorbitant resilience to our intense efforts of somehow capturing them; instead, we eternally go on commodifying and commercializing them only as a means of further promoting our Ego. After a long, interminable course from the so-called ‘primitive’ human to the modern ‘civilized’ one, still “Society, what people call the world, is nothing more than the war of a thousand petty opposed interests,” Nicolas Chamfort notes correctly (1902: 36).

'The Square' (Ruben Östlund, 2017). Framegrab.

Not Just One But Many Animalistic Audiences

Another question I set out to answer here is what it means to observe, what are we actually looking at and what does exactly each one of us understand in this act of looking, in an era of previously unimagined proliferation of messages and spectacles. In The Square, many kinds of spectators and audiences are interwoven, interacting at times one with another, in what alludes to a kind of interactive cinematic performance, which never ceases to challenge and finally manages to dissolve any existing frontiers between strictly defined roles traditionally involved in the process of watching a movie. There is of course the audience of the ‘Square’ project itself at the museum; the broader audience of the project’s advertising clip on YouTube; there is the audience watching the weird performance of the primitive human at the banquet; another one attending Christian’s speech at the inauguration ceremony. Östlund, however, does not stop there: he extends the movie out of the screen too, creating a kind of performance, interacting with the audiences watching the movie in the theaters where it is screened. Having traced extensively all the vestiges of human animality in the movie, I also intend to investigate the set of audiences found in The Square by interrogating the movie-goer’s relationship to the movie and especially to the audience of the specific theater where we watch it. Then I tie all this up again with the same philosophical connective tissue of contemporary (Western) humans’ animality and their feigned – as much as futile – efforts to transcend it.

There are three basic elements in Östlund’s approach to the notion of the audience: animality as a connatural trait detected in many types of contemporary audiences; parody, as a typically postmodern stratagem to dissect and deconstruct these audiences’ animality; and, a proclivity towards the elimination of any existing borders among the various participants in the movie-watching process, namely, director and actors on the one hand and the movie’s audiences on the other.

Regarding the first element – animality – it surely characterizes any single audience existent either within the movie or out of it: Christian watches stunned an ape staring at him in Ann’s room; the guests gathered at the museum’s banquet watch equally astonished the ‘show’ of the ape-like primitive performer; and we, as the movie’s viewers, are also watching live, in one of the theaters, the truly animalistic reactions of an audience equally brutalized by its inexorable thirst for endless entertainment and laughter. Contemporary art audiences, Östlund seems to be telling us, are deeply contaminated by the same animalistic resurgence of which both our contemporary Western society and humans also suffer.

With regard to parody as a typical characteristic of postmodern art and cinema, especially in its entwinement with the topic of the human-animal relationship as we have already defined it, i.e., as the violent repression of an ‘Other’ considered as abject, be it an animal or an immigrant, Linda Hutcheon, one of postmodernism’s most illustrious theoreticians writes:

And parody has certainly become a most popular and effective strategy of black, ethnic, and feminist artists, trying to come to terms with and to respond, critically and creatively, to the predominantly white, Anglo, male culture in which they find themselves. For both artists and their audiences, parody sets up a dialectical relation between identification and distance. Like Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, parody works to distance and, at the same time, to involve both artist and audience in a participatory hermeneutic activity” (1986-1987: 206 – my emphasis).

Indeed, Östlund implements parody both as a means of exposing the essentially racist and hating nature of our modern Western societies and as a catalyst for achieving the typically postmodern demolition of any distinction between artist, work of art, and audience(s).

Coming thus to the third element of Östlund’s approach to the notion of the audience – that of the fusion of the various participants in the act of watching a movie – again Hutcheon, this time citing Charles Russell, writes that:

Postmodernist art in general directly engages audiences in the processes of signification. It therefore denies the alienation and transcendence of social milieu that characterized modernism: “the artist and audience will seek to make explicit their existence within language and cultural discourse...” ” (1986-1987: 193-194 – my emphasis).

With the advent of postmodernism, the traditional passivity of the audience vis-à-vis the work of art is superseded by its energetic participation in it. It is not a coincidence that in many instances in The Square – both on-screen and out of the screen – Östlund shows a clear predisposition towards the form of the performance as a postmodern mode of artistic expression par excellence.

In the same spirit, Östlund seeks to abolish all limits between the object of watching and the act of watching; to interrogate his audience’s true commitment to what is taking place on-screen and its responses to it; to render it a co-participant in the serious ethical topics he broaches in his movie; to test, in the last analysis, its own morality at a practical level and not just a theoretical one. To do so he needs to transfer the movie into the theater and to convert himself into an actor as well, this time in another kind of movie, a more real and tangible one, whose outcome and implications are far more important. Unfortunately, his various kinds of audiences, those found in the movie and the ones out of it, fail to pass Östlund’s performative test of moral integrity – his ‘Square’ test – in a resounding manner. In the last Section of this paper I proceed to prove this assertion using several concrete examples taken from the movie.

Epilogue: Guffaws are not Going to Help at all. Let’s Look the Chimpanzee in the Eyes!

In one of the first scenes of the movie, we watch the inauguration ceremony of the ‘Square’ project taking place in the premises of the museum. The hall where the ceremony is held corresponds to the latest trends in architecture, implying at the same time sumptuousness and good taste. Judging by their attire, the guests most probably belong to the social class of the well-educated and the affluent. They are listening carefully to the speeches of the museum’s officials. Christian also has the floor and, as self-conceited as he might be, he talks about the importance of the peculiar exhibit, which he – as the project’s manager – has the special honor of introducing to the spectacle-loving public. The ceremony approaches its end and one of the museum’s officials kindly invites the guests to the buffet table where exquisite delicacies await them. All of a sudden, the guests, who up to this moment have been utterly quiet listening carefully to the speakers, are now transformed into a herd of wild animals yelling and shouting, one jostling another, each one trying to make his way first to the buffet table. The museum’s official, who up to this point has been strictly complying with the etiquette rules proper for the occasion, does not hesitate in the least to breach them now, as he bellows to them that they should shut up and calmly proceed to the buffet one at a time with no shoving and pushing. Terrified, the crowd are momentarily immobilized and seem to be disposed to obey the orders of the enraged official.

At the same time, the audience in the theater where the movie is screened looks equally perplexed for a moment, astonished by the unexpected turn the plot has taken. In the absence of an officer or any other competent authority nearby, they burst into a collective horselaugh. From the comfort of your seat you can imagine an already smirking Östlund.

In another occasion, while on-screen we are watching the chimpanzee wandering about blithely in Ann’s house before Christian’s astounded eyes, out of the screen, in the movie theater, the audience is again transformed into a herd and, after an initial state of perplexity, – much like Christian’s, – they lose no time in bursting into another thunderous guffaw. One has the sense that Östlund is just transferring his ‘Square’ test from the screen and the various audiences projected on it straight into the movie theater. If every single audience appearing in the movie is reiteratively exposed in all its animalistic grandeur, any other audience interacting with the movie, out of the screen as well, is not at all exempt from exactly this same animality. If Östlund is desperately trying on-screen to make the point of the dubiousness of our morality, the audience in the theater, out of the screen, serves as the locus of the empirical testing and final corroboration of his assumption.

It looks like Östlund, with his movie, has put in motion another one of his ingenious social experiments using cinema as his vehicle: whatever question or reflection is posed on-screen is also transferred out of it, into the audience, in a kind of interactive hypothesis testing of his working assumptions. And, it happens that, in the case of The Square, the questions posed are extremely profound and implacable, whereas, furthermore, they seem to be fully corroborated out of the screen as well. Östlund himself – during his short introduction which preceded the movie’s screening at the 58th International Thessaloniki Film Festival (November 2017) – explained that he intentionally brings the movie’s central idea to real life, testing his audience as to its underlying assumptions, making them true participants instead of mere watchers: he places his wallet and other valuable personal objects in the middle of the theater and just leaves the place, having first explained to them what his experiment-performance is all about. At the end of the screening, he returns and checks out whether his objects are still at the same point where he left them. This way, he tests empirically the basic question posed in the movie, i.e., whether a tacit contract of confidence and love among people can still obtain in this world. Cinema and real life become one. How could they ever be separated? Participants of the movie and audience(s) collaborate, interchanging roles, so that this screening does not degenerate into just another two or three-hour frivolous and thoughtless entertainment full of superficial laughter and tons of ruminated junk food along the way but, if possible, one that functions like a springboard for some true meditation on several important issues concerning our very psychical structure and, in the ideal case, as a tool for a radical internal change.

The well-to-do sponsors of the ‘Square’ project along with other guests are gathered at the banquet held in their honor by the museum. The hall is sumptuous, while the attire of the fellow diners leaves no doubt about the social class they belong to. A performance show is about to begin, an artistic offering of the museum to its distinguished guests. The artist shows up. Snickers begin to ripple among the fellow diners; exactly the same thing is happening in the movie theater (although with more intensity in this case).

The performance artist is dressed as a primitive. He is bare-chested, brawny, with high cheekbones. Visually, he perfectly fits the stereotype of the primitive human’s physique. Moving with complete naturalness, uttering unintelligible shrieks, he approaches the fellow diners. He eyeballs them one by one. More snickers spread across the room. Everybody is thirsty for as much entertainment as possible, in line with the stipulated protocol of similar ceremonials. As the primitive moves from one guest to the other, staring at them with the apathetic gaze of the animal, he gets impressed by the most unbelievable details of their body and attire.

Gradually, however, his movements and shrieks become ever more violent. He starts being aggressive with the dinner guests. He seems to be irritated by such a big concentration of people gathered in such a small space, inundated by so many intense optical stimuli, as well as by all that ‘civilization’ pretense he is suddenly faced with. Insofar as his mood is getting more threatening, snickers begin to freeze on the guests’ lips, until they are converted into little titters of awkwardness. The audience in the movie theater reacts in a similar manner. Perplexity and tension reign. Up to the point where the primitive human’s attention is suddenly captured by an impressive redhead female guest. He comes close to her, he scrutinizes her, however, gradually, he starts groping her. And then, all of a sudden, he gets mad. He grabs her violently, throws her on the ground, drags her, then he immobilizes her and begins tearing her clothes with some obvious intentions. At the moment, all laughter has vanished in the hall. After a few moments of silent awkwardness (or maybe fear?), the resolution is already made: similar to a herd, as one, all the fellow diners leave their seats abruptly; they run towards the place where the lady lies and, they start hitting the primitive human implacably, in a demonstration of a violence which by far supersedes his own. Once more in the movie, an audience is being identified with animality. From the levity of the spectacle and entertainment – to such an extent deified by contemporary society – we are abruptly transferred to the most atavistic and primitive outbursts of human animality and violence.  

The scene has come to an end. So far, Östlund has wiped the smile off everybody’s face, either on-screen or out of it. What we have watched has not probably been just another frivolous comedy as the usual suspects – the commercial distribution channels – for the same old reasons, might have wanted us to believe, but instead, an absolutely serious movie broaching some equally profound and thought-provoking topics, whose aim is absolutely not restricted to slaking the public’s unquenchable thirst for entertainment and easy fun.

Östlund has offered us a cinematic masterpiece, through which he has spoken to us about ourselves, reaching such unfathomable depths that we have never had the courage to explore. He has explained to us convincingly that, obviously enough, one does not attain long yearned-for values such as altruism or virtue by simply boasting verbally to already possess them. Virtue has nothing whatsoever to do with verbosity. Östlund has anatomically deconstructed the way we go on creating incessantly images of our Self with the sole objective of further enhancing and reinforcing it in order to reap multiple personal benefits. This way, humans emerge as a product of a society based on the ‘principles’ of lust and self-love – ‘φιληδονία’ and ‘φιλοψυχία’ according to Pascal’s and  Michelstaedter’s terms, respectively. 

He has further revealed to us the truly animalistic, self-loving, violent facet of our human Self and showed to us the extent to which this Self comes in sharp contrast with our assertions about our supposed humanness as well as with the ‘persona’ of a virtuous human being which we go on projecting in the social sphere. He has bluntly equated us to mere chimpanzees, and he has demonstrated this to us with arguments difficult to counteract, not just in theory but in practice, both on-screen and out of it. He temporarily offered to us that comical mantle which we so vehemently seek as a means of forgetting – even for a single moment – our tedious and monotonous selves, just to snatch it out of our hands in the very next moment, when he unveiled to us – raised in relief – our inner animalistic human nature. The wallet Östlund left on the stage of the New York movie theater where his The Square was shown ‘went for a walk’ along with all of his money and credit cards, reminding us that this is definitely not just an entertaining movie and that many of us – his audience – do not actually ‘pass the test’ of his ‘Square’ experiment in real-life conditions.

Östlund has also put the finger on the sore spot regarding the question of whether Sweden is indeed a country of toleration, commitment to equality, respect for the rights of every single person with no exception, solidarity, humanism and trust between people – all of which constitute as we know some highly praised values for the modern Swedish society.

You stand up, ready to leave the theater. The lady who was sitting next to you during the screening – to whom, at some point, you could not help but explain that the movie she was watching was definitely not a comedy and that hence, her ceaseless horselaugh was at least inopportune and untimely for the occasion – obviously annoyed, a sneer written across her face, casts a disdainful look at you as if you were the one who has not even understood what the movie has all been about and the one who has irreversibly destroyed her inalienable right to perennial entertainment and fun. You hope she is the one to have right on her side and you leave the place absolutely content for your own personal reasons.


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Suggested citation

Makedonas, Eleftherios (2019), Mocking the ‘Civilized’ Viewer-chimpanzee – Ruben Östlund’s The Square. Kosmorama #275 (

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